This Thursday, September
25, sixteen fathers (at last count) will begin a hunger strike to draw media
attention to issues like the imprisonment of "deadbeat dads."
The group, Hunger Strike for Justice, estimates the total number of fathers
incarcerated in the U.S. for failure to pay child support is 250,000.
This estimate seems high given that the entire prison population is just
over two million, but it is difficult to argue because no official statistics
A more useful question to ask, however, is: What does throwing a "deadbeat dad" in jail accomplish?
That's the question recently asked by a Texas judge who recommended
releasing from jail 112 men who were behind county bars because they hadn't
paid child support. (No women were imprisoned on the charge.) The judge doubted
the wisdom of throwing non-violent parents into a badly overcrowded jail
system because they were in debt. After all, there is no statistical proof
that imprisonment motivates a father who can pay court-ordered child support
to do so; imprisonment prevents those unable to pay from earning money.
The deadbeat dad stereotype is of a father who abandons his children and
willfully refuses to pay for their support. He has become a cultural villain
on par with other "D-Ds:" the drunk driver and the drug dealer. That stereotype
is at the center of an emerging debate over whether delinquent fathers should
A point on which both sides agree: children are being deprived of financial
support, and that should be corrected. One side -- consisting largely of
those who enforce or benefit from current policies -- wishes to track down
and imprison fathers who owe money. The other side -- consisting largely
of father's rights advocates -- calls for an overhaul of current child support
policies, claiming they are unjust and unworkable for both fathers and children.
Advocates of imprisonment wield the force of law. In cities and counties
across North America, delinquent fathers are going to jail.
For example, deadbeat "parents" (read men) in Central Texas were warned last
week: pay up or else. The "or else" is a threat of six months in jail. At
the same moment, the federal government announced a nationwide crackdown, coordinated by the U.S. Health and Human Services Department.
The possible extent of such crackdowns can be gauged from a statement made
by Larry McKeown, director of South Carolina's Child Support Enforcement.
He claims that South Carolina alone is pursuing collection from an astounding
225,000 delinquent parents.
Again, the argument is that deadbeat dads are able to pay and simply require
the threat of jail to do so. Although it is not supported by statistical
research, the argument may be true in some cases. But the opposite is probably
"Divorced Dads: Shattering the Myths"
remains the most extensive federally funded study on divorced fathers. Conducted
by Dr. Sanford Braver of Arizona State University, it found that the stereotypical
deadbeat dad "does not exist in significant numbers." Many if not most of
delinquent fathers are unable to pay their child support, especially when
it is coupled with steep interest charges for falling behind.
The questions surrounding imprisonment are complicated by an extraordinary
lack of hard data on even the most basic facts; for example, the number of
delinquent fathers in jail is unknown. (The Bureau of Justice Statistics
broadly categorizes crimes as "Violent, Property, Drug, or Public Order.")
In the absence of such data, father's rights advocates tend to focus on personal
stories and the deeper problems underlying the concept of "deadbeat dad."
The personal stories can be heartbreaking, such as those told in the suicide notes of fathers left without a means of supporting themselves. Other stories are infuriating, like that of Bobby Sherrill.
Working in Kuwait during the Iraqi invasion of 1990, Sherrill was taken hostage.
Upon his release and return to America, he was arrested for failure to make
support payments while captive.
The underlying problems to which father's rights advocates point include:
Child support cannot be reasonably altered. For example,
the Bradley Amendment forbids a judge from retroactively reducing or forgiving
child support due to changed circumstances, such as unemployment or illness.
(This amendment led to Sherrill's arrest.)
The current child support system is a "gravy train" for
state and local agencies, judges and attorneys, social workers, private collection
agencies, child-support professionals ... none of whom have a vested interest
in reducing bureaucracy or listening to fathers' complaints.
Payments should be linked to a non-abusive father's right to see his children, a right that is often de facto denied. According to a 1999 U.S. Census Bureau report,
when joint custody or visitation rights was present, the non-custodial parent
paid at least some support in 78.7 percent of cases. Without joint custody
or visitation, the percentage fell to 46.1.
Current policies violate the right to due process. They also violate many
state constitutions. For example, judges in both Georgia and Tennessee have
ruled their own state's child support guidelines to be unconstitutional.
A mountain of objections could be added.
With a social problem weak on statistics, strong on devastating personal
tragedy and rife with systemic problems such as those listed above, this
week's Hunger Strike for Justice is right about one thing: the media should
be paying attention.
Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com
and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. Her
new book is Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century.
Reprinted with permission of ifeminists.com.